This is quite a refreshing story, found in the British Library collection “Serpents in Eden”, featuring mysteries of the countryside – which turns out to be quite a tenuous link in fact, but never mind. At least I get to read interesting stories like this one.
This story is quite unusual, in that although the crime is solved, justice isn’t done – pretty revolutionary for a Golden Age detective story, I can tell you. The bad guys escape to fight another day, although the detective (Mr Trent in this story) now knows what he’s up against and will be better prepared next time. Although I must say that when it comes to preparation, very little can beat this crew of reprobates. My word, they are thorough.
We see the action through the victim’s eyes – always a good move – as the triumphant story of how a heraldic tabard worn by the man who had to declare the independence of the United States on the steps of St James’ Palace came to be purchased by a collector from a rural vicar with an interest in antiquities. Which would be fine, if that’s genuinely what it was – but at best it’s been misrepresented and at worst, it’s stolen goods. Either way, the new owner not only has to part with his treasured possession, but he’s short of about twenty thousand pounds as well. That’s a lot of money for a top, even these days.
It seems that a gang of thieves who specialise in antiques and rare objects – such as books, silverware – have taken a temporary let of a vicarage while the incumbent is on a pilgrimage, and used that as a front to sell their wares to unsuspecting tourists, who are encouraged to visit by their accomplice, posing as a knowledgeable man about town. Nobody would accuse a vicar of being dishonest would they? So when the vicar says it’s this, he’s immediately believed. Immensely clever. Sadly, by the time Trent has worked out what they’ve done, the original vicar has returned and the crooks have disappeared.
It’s a clever story and very well written – but there is a class issue featured. All vicars have degrees (even these days) and this particular one was a fellow at All Souls. There’s an assumption that readers would have been aware that All Souls was, at that time, a graduate college and so would not have had sporting blues. I don’t think this was common knowledge, but it does show some authorial bias towards the readership Bentley thought he had. Whether this is a fair comment, I don’t know, but it did jar with me, and I like to think I know enough Oxbridge graduates to have got my brain round this idea.
Otherwise, all I can offer is the moral of the story – if it sounds too good to be true…